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VIEWPOINT: OFF-LIMITS PLACES

Off-Limits Places: The William Bettendorf mansion

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William Bettendorf never got to live in his mansion, and his widow lived there only briefly.

In the 100-plus years since death separated the Bettendorfs, their beautiful mansion above the Mississippi River in their namesake city has barely been touched. Though a sprawling senior-living campus surrounds it, the house itself has been maintained almost as if the Bettendorfs are expected to return.

When a former worker hung a portrait of the widow Bettendorf on her office wall — one of just a few spaces in the mansion that are used today — a series of unusual happenings inexplicably stopped. The employee guessed she had inadvertently satisfied Mrs. Bettendorf's after-death desire to remain part of the property.

The home is filled with treasures that no one can identify. Origins of furniture and artwork are largely unknown.

But more of the mansion than ever is soon to be exposed.

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The William Bettendorf Mansion as it looked around 1910.

The man who built it

If not for the mansion's maker, there would be no Bettendorf bluff upon which it rests. Without the Bettendorf brothers, the city east of Davenport might still be called Gilbert.

Residents of Gilbert voted in 1903 to rename their town after the pair of German-American inventors who moved their train-car and axle business over from Davenport.

Older brother William and younger brother Joseph each built homes to match their success. Joseph's mansion is widely recognized for its repurposed life as St. Katharine's-St. Mark's, which today bears the name Rivermont Collegiate.

But William's mansion isn't nearly so familiar. In the 109 years since it was built atop 25th Street, it has quietly held its ground.

William Bettendorf died just before the home he enthusiastically helped design was finished. If he had lived there, it would follow that much more would be known about it.

And shortly after his death in 1910, the mansion was purchased by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Iowa — a group known for protecting its privacy.

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The Spanish-style architecture still is evident on the exterior of the William Bettendorf Mansion. It has taken on massive additions over the years to create the Iowa Masonic Health Facilities. The Mansion, off of Grant Street, has been carefully guarded over the decades. William Bettendorf died just a week before his mansion was completed in 1910. He was buried in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport.

Death and secrecy have done a number on the William Bettendorf mansion.

Maybe that's part of what makes it so interesting.

A century of closed doors

For more than a century, the William Bettendorf mansion has been off-limits to the public.

The Masons built huge additions onto the house when the brotherhood turned it into a sanitarium shortly after buying it in 1925. They built nearly 100 rooms on the campus for ailing and aged Masons, their wives and widows. It's still called Iowa Masonic, though the modern-day nursing home and retirement community is open to anyone.

But the Masons and those in charge of maintaining the mansion today have taken a hands-off approach, leaving the home — and its mysteries — mostly intact.

For the first time in its history, the William Bettendorf mansion was opened to the public last Christmas. Some who have worked on the grounds for 20 years or more were seeing the house for the first time.

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A sitting room attached to one of the bedrooms in what is believed to be the guests' and servants' side of the second level of the residence in the William Bettendorf Mansion.

As plans are carved out for creating greater community access, considerable work lies ahead. The handful of administrative offices that occupy corners of the mansion must be relocated to the newer portions of the campus, and someone has to figure out where to put all the period furniture that was donated over the decades by generous Masons.

The tours no doubt will be much different from customary historic-home tours because of its abbreviated lore.

During our two-plus hours of wandering the rooms, many questions went unanswered:

This would seem like the master bedroom, but are you sure?

Why did the Masons remove portions of the east and west wings?

Was Bettendorf really planning to build a ballroom in the attic?

Where did all the furniture and artwork come from, and how did it end up here?

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The entry foyer and grand staircase in the William Bettendorf Mansion. The rail-car baron imported oak logs from England for the construction of his Spanish-style mansion, and every log was milled on-site for continuity in appearance. The mansion, which is surrounded by the Iowa Masonic's retirement community campus in Bettendorf, is seldom toured. The home has been carefully guarded over the decades, beginning with its purchase in 1925 by the Grand Lodge of Masons in Iowa.

A few answers

Elizabeth Bettendorf and her son from a previous marriage, Oscar Staby, moved into the finished mansion in 1910, but they didn't stay long.

The 22 rooms were too much for two people. When they moved out, the home that was said to cost an astonishing $150,000 at the beginning of the last century sat vacant for several years.

Elizabeth died in 1923, and Staby (himself a Mason) sold it and about two-dozen acres to the Grand Lodge for $50,000 in 1925.

From there, records are unclear or non-existent.

Of all the pieces of furniture that are on display or tucked into the mansion's multitude of closets and expansive attic, it is believed that only four pieces belonged to the Bettendorfs.

Our tour guide and the marketing coordinator for Iowa Masonic, Rebecca Wiley, pointed out the Bettendorf's set, which includes a wooden bench with two large matching chairs and a smaller chair. Each piece contains carved pieces of inlaid wood. The small chair has a music box built into its underside, and all the pieces sit in front of large windows at one end of the second-floor foyer.

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A sitting room attached to one of the bedrooms in what is believed to be the guests' and servants' side of the second level of the residence in the William Bettendorf Mansion.

Two paintings have been identified as "probably" belonging to the Bettendorfs, but most of the mansion's contents are of uncertain origin — either having belonged to the Bettendorfs or the Masons.

Some pieces are quite old and appear to be of considerable value. But no one kept records of donations, so practically nothing is known about who donated them or where they came from.

What money could buy

William Bettendorf built his mansion with business and entertainment in mind.

He sought to sell his train cars to railroad executives, so he built a home that would wow even the wealthiest of barons. And he started with the entrance.

The front of the mansion faces the Mississippi River. A wide set of stairs built into the long, sloping lawn would have carried Bettendorf and his visitors from industry below the bluff. The staircase pauses at a flat spot in the final layer of lawn to showcase a large fountain, which is no longer. Old photos suggest the bubbling concrete well may have been the first place to spot Bettendorf's fondness for lions' heads, which decorated the fountain's center.

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A pair of hand-carved lions adorn the bottom of the grand staircase in the William Bettendorf Mansion.

A trio of Spanish-style archways led to the home's main entrance, where double doors open to the grand foyer.

"This is the widest staircase in the Quad-Cities," declared Wiley, our host. "The staircase was built first, and the house was built around it."

The base of the staircase banister contains a matching set of hand-carved lions. Bettendorf was so insistent upon detail, Wiley said, ridges were carved into the roofs of the lions' open mouths to mimic the real thing.

The original chandelier for the main foyer remains, and its chain disappears above the open staircase to the ceiling more than two stories above.

On each side of the staircase on the first floor are several large rooms, including a library, parlor/sitting room and dining room. It is presumed the missing kitchen must have been lost when the Masons, for unknown reasons, removed parts of the home.

Against one wall of the dining room is an old-looking safe about the size of a large armoire. No one could say whether it belonged to Bettendorf or was somehow hoisted in by the Masons.

The dining room has a rounded ceiling with patterned plaster. It is said that Bettendorf imported oak logs from England, which were milled on-site, to create paneling. The craftsmen cut the panels, so patterns in the grain were a match for each opposing wall, and this detail is most obvious in the dining room.

There were nine fireplaces and eight bathrooms — an astounding number in the early 1900s. The large porcelain tubs in several bathrooms are said to weigh a half ton.

The bedroom that is believed to have been built as Bettendorf's master is at the end of the hall on the west wing of the house. Even the bathroom has decorative plaster molding, and the sink is the size of a large outdoor bird bath. Off the master's sitting room is one of many closets in the house that have large windows with stunning views of the Mississippi River — in the closets.

In the master, the window facing the river is more than 5 feet wide.

It is unknown whether Mrs. Bettendorf ever occupied the master bedroom, given that her husband died before she and her son moved in.

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One of the bedrooms in what is believed to be the Bettendorf's living area in the William Bettendorf Mansion in Bettendorf.

The two "wings" on the second floor are separated by the beautiful foyer at the top of the open staircase. To enter the wing with the master, one must pass through a set of large doors that create an imbalance in the otherwise symmetrical space, because the other wing — presumably for guests — has no doors.

"At one time, one of the administrators of the sanitarium lived here, and his son walked in his sleep," Wiley said. "We believe that's why the doors were added to just one side."

It is believed the east wing was mostly for the guests Bettendorf hoped to pamper. Each space represents a suite, equipped with a bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, fireplace and closets.

Unfortunately, the footprint of the original upstairs space is not known. For some reason, Wiley said, the Masons removed portions of each wing. When you pull draperies aside on the large doors at either end of the upstairs hallways, walls appear on the other side of the glass. But this is easily explained by the fact the Masons added sanitarium space directly onto the mansion.

The future of the home

The Bettendorf house has been so pampered, some spaces haven't been explored for many years.

In fact, someone doing some cleaning on the second floor just last year uncovered a gurney, medical cart and wheelchair that must be close to 100 years old. Ditto for a small, antique lap harp that was recently found in a closet. Very few people have been permitted to simply poke around in the house.

Of course, the public won't be invited in to do the poking, but the time has come, today's Iowa Masonic leadership says, to permit public passage.

As plans are made to relocate a handful of staffers into portions of the retirement community, Wiley is looking for details about the Bettendorfs and their home, so tour guides have more to say.

"In a way, we know quite a bit about the house, but there's so much we don't know," she said.

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The entrance into what is believed to be the family bedrooms in the William Bettendorf Mansion in Bettendorf.

One mystery that would be interesting to pursue is the multiple reports of ghostly appearances.

"Residents on the nursing side have talked about seeing two black children and a Confederate soldier," Wiley said. "It would be interesting to know something about that."

The huge attic with oddly thick concrete walls and arched doorways would seem like a gold mine of a starting place. We weren't permitted to take any pictures or do much looking because medical records are stored in boxes there, but the space clearly was packed with treasures.

"From what we understand, Mr. Bettendorf planned to build a ballroom up here, and that's why the walls are so thick," Wiley said. "We believe the walls were built this way, so the music in the ballroom couldn't be heard in the bedrooms below."

And that makes sense, given the wide hallway that leads to the attic door — wide enough for musicians to haul in their instruments. Or, maybe it was built so wide, because Bettendorf intended to use the attic for storage. Again, no one seems to know.

Whoever gets the job of going through the contents of the mansion has an enviable job — a "premier" position, as they say in Bettendorf.

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Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or bickes@qctimes.com

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